Shattered Images: How 100 Black Women Will Reclaim Their Identity
New photography project aims to shatter negative black women stereotypes
Black women and media have a long and strained relationship. For every positive image of black women on television, in films or magazines there are at least a handful that counter them. There was a time when black women were visible, multi-dimensional and revered. Long gone is the era when Claire Huxtable shined in primetime, Beverly Johnson graced the covers of high fashion magazines and Naomi and Tyra dominated the runway. Now, black women serve as props, arm candy and sassy bullies.
Ijeoma D. Iheanacho is looking to change that. The New York based photographer is spearheading an online fundraising campaign for "The reImagining: Photographing the Unheard," an art exhibit that will feature 100 black women portraying and defying stereotypes placed upon them. Loop 21 spoke with Iheanacho, 34, on her motivation, what images of black women upset her the most and what artists have influenced her photography.
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As a photographer, explain the look and message of your overall work.
My work seeks to tell the stories that go untold. I try to give voice to people and ideas that find themselves on the margins of our national conversation. I like to work in a process that I call stylized portraiture. I try to capture the subject in a way that speaks in the truest voice, but still allows room for the viewers to bring their own interpretation to the photograph. I work in both black and white and in color depending on the themes of the project and I usually try to keep my prints to an intimate scale.
How long have you been a photographer and what made you first pick up a camera?
I always have to do the math on this question, but I have to say I have been shooting for close to 15 years now. I probably have the most mundane beginner story out there! I studied architecture in college. In order to preserve my work for my post-graduate portfolio, I started photographing my projects before my professors could get their hands on them. But the photography bug bit hard and soon I was pointing my lens at everything (and everyone) around me. I became fascinated between the truth of the subject and what I could actually capture and document. I have been photographing ever since, trying to bring those two extremes closer together with every project.
What upsets you the most about the way women are depicted in media/imagery?
To be honest I am torn between my disgust for the way we have been disappeared from the mainstream, and my distaste for the misrepresentation of black women when we are "allowed" on the screen. The example that has burned itself into my brain is from an episode of 30 Rock. The main character, played by Tina Fey, found herself so "afraid" to speak to a black female character, that she began to ask random - non-black - people how she should speak to her. They all told her to compliment her nails and everything will be alright. Well the scene plays out and of course the black female character is shown as overbearing, mean, and ill-mannered. The Fey's character blurts out she likes her nails and all of a sudden the black woman is all giggles as if she was a 3-year-old just given a sucker. Now this is a very popular, highly rated sitcom. To my knowledge there are no main black female characters to combat the stereotyping that just ran rampant for 30 minutes. It was a slap in the face, and unfortunately, an all too familiar one. I know everyone reading this has a similar story they can tell. The problem comes to bear when people take these stereotypes as truths and start treating black women in accordance to the stereotypes they are being fed everyday.
Why aren't women held to task about partaking in negative images -- video vixens, magazine models, reality TV stars -- as much as men are for taking the images?
I have to say I am both a feminist and a realist on this issue. The feminist side of me does not feel the need to admonish any woman for the choices she makes, as long as she is ready to take responsibility for the consequences. The realist side of me does get more than a bit miffed at the steps backward those choices take us. I think before we admonish any woman for her choices, we need to be able to say that we were able to present her with all the choices available. I am sure there will always be video vixens, but given the chance, I am sure more women would rather be college graduates.
What made you create this project and aim for such a high number of images to produce -- 300 in total?
I wanted to create a project that spoke the truth about black women. What better way than to let them tell their own stories - and en masse? I picked the number 100 to demonstrate how varied and individual each women is. The reImagining is a 300 image photography exhibition focused on allowing the 100 "ordinary" women of African descent to not only stand up to the stereotypes they are forced to live with everyday, but to also actively work against them. The women in the project have bravely stepped forward to let the world know that they are present and worth being noticed. Every woman answered three questions:
- Who are you? (What are the stereotypes you feel are put upon you)
- Who are you, really? (What are the titles you choose to take on)
- How do you want the world to see you? (How do you want to define yourself to the world)
Each woman will have a stylized portrait of herself created based on the answer to each question. Both the text and the portraits will be turned into a traveling exhibition that will be shown nationally in partnership with local non-profits dedicated to bringing the arts to underrepresented communities. The creation of the project will also be used as a teaching moment. I will be giving studio visits and gallery tours to organizations that work with young at risk girls so they can begin learning the lessons of self-esteem and self determination. But before we can make all this happen, we need the support of the community! We are currently doing a kickstarter fundraising campaign to raise the funds needed to produce the project. The support of the community can make this happen. Please visit idistudios.com for more information on how you can help this watershed project become a reality.
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What cities are you looking to show in and ideally, how long will this exhibit travel?
I want to be able to allow as many people to take advantage of the exhibition as possible. In teaming up with non-profits that serve under-represented communities, I hope to bring not only this exhibition but also a link to the arts as a whole. I want the project to travel to all the major cities - New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta, San Francisco, but I also want this project to be seen in places that are usually overlooked. I hope to be able to travel this exhibition for at least 18 months and make sure to get it to everyone that wants to see it. Upon the close of the exhibition, an exhibition catalog will be created to allow more people access to the themes of the project as well as to be used in a variety of educational settings. Finally, a dedicated website will be created to allow for documentation of the project as well as to create a forum and community that can begin to bring real solutions to the themes discussed in the project.
What are some of the more prevalent stereotypes you hope to address in this project?
Every woman experiences every stereotype in her own way, but they really fall into a few categories. The best breakdown of this can be found in Patricia Hill Collins' seminal book, "Black Feminist Thought". She explains how the stereotypical images of "the mammy", "the matriarch", "the welfare mother", "the black lady", and "the jezebel" have shaped the way American culture defines and represents black women. Each woman in the project, and even myself, have felt the sting of more than a few of these labels. Most black women can tell you a story that parallels these false narratives and the consequences they have caused in her life. Each woman participating in the project is asked to lay these wounds bare in her first portrait to allow the viewer to recognize the false assertion and follow her journey to the real version of herself with the middle and final portraits.
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What are some images today that you feel are very positive/negative regarding black women?
I have to admit it, I still grin every time I see Michelle Obama. I am not going to lie, I was heartbroken when she gave the interview discussing her stereotyping as the "angry black woman", aka "the matriarch". From the photoshopped images of her as a monkey, to the cover of the New Yorker with her as a militant, I have never in my lifetime seen a First Lady so shoehorned into a narrative that is so on its face false. It seems as though no matter how much notoriety a black woman attains, she is still not "allowed" to own her own narrative. As many Hollywood breakups as there have been, have you seen one get so racial, so fast, as the Halle Berry/Gabriel Aubry breakup? No matter the strides being made by "notable" black women, the benefits of these positive images still do not translate to the "ordinary" black women. Despite the fact Oprah Winfrey owns her own network, I still can not go shopping without a store detective shadowing me. My aim is to make the reImagining so impactful on the American psyche that when people think "black woman", they think of an image from the exhibition.
Who are some women artist the influence you?
I know so many women in general that have influenced me. From family, to friends, to colleagues, the list is unreasonable. But to narrow it down to two women who have influenced my development as an artist, I would have to say Carrie Mae Weems and Dr. Deborah Willis. The rawness of Weems' work really set me on my heels the first time I saw her images. She created work and delved into themes that were completely real and previously unexplored or presented for popular consumption. I consider her a pioneer. Dr. Willis is as extraordinary a photographer that has ever existed, but her work as a historian is what makes me hold her in awe. The work she has done has not only preserved the images created by black photographers, but also the histories of these amazing artists that would have otherwise gone unnoticed.